Friday, October 28, 2011

Literary Mystery Novelists--John Lescroart

After much traveling and then a couple of days chauffeuring my friend Sherwin Bitsui around Kansas City before and after his remarkable poetry reading at The Writers Place, I'm getting back on my regular schedule with this blog. Today, we have a real treat in the Literary Mystery Novelists series with John Lescroart.
Lescroart has been called a national treasure for his writing skills, and his latest novel, Damage, offers evidence for that claim. As he does in many of his novels, Lescroart examines serious societal issues in this book. In Damage, those include the power and wealth that allows a segment of the population to flout laws and escape punishment for their crimes and the legal system that caters to this powerful elite at the expense of ordinary citizens.This stand-alone novel offers the sharp humor, rich characterization, and complex storyline that fans have come to expect from Lescroart. His novels are beautifully crafted, and he's reaped the rewards of his artistic labors with multiple stays on the New York Times bestseller list.
Damage will be out in paperback at the end of December, and Lescroart's newest book, The Hunter, will launch in January. Here is the link to buy Damage.
John Lescroart Bio

John Lescroart is the NY Times Bestselling author of twenty-two novels, including most recently DAMAGE (January, 2011), the latest in the San Francisco based Dismas Hardy/Abe Glitsky series.  Libraries Unlimited has included him in its publication “The 100 Most Popular Thriller and Suspense Authors,” his books have been translated into twenty languages in more than seventy-five countries, and his short stories appear in many anthologies. 

John’s first novel, SUNBURN, won the San Francisco Foundation’s Joseph Henry Jackson Award for best as yet unpublished novel by a California author, and DEAD IRISH and THE 13TH JUROR were nominees for the Shamus and Anthony Best Mystery Novel, respectively; additionally THE 13TH JUROR is included in the International Thriller Writers publication “100 Must-Read Thrillers Of All Time.”  HARD EVIDENCE is named in “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Ultimate Reading List.”  GUILT was a Readers Digest Select Edition choice.  THE MERCY RULE, NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH, and THE SUSPECT have been major market Book Club selections.  THE SUSPECT was also the 2007 One Book Sacramento choice of the Sacramento Library Foundation, and was chosen by the American Author’s Association as its 2007 Book of the Year. Each of the last several of John’s books have been Main Selections of one or more of the Literary Guild, Mystery Guild, and Book of the Month Club, and DAMAGE made Entertainment Weekly’s “Must List.”    

Outside of the book world, John loves to cook.  His original recipes have appeared in Gourmet Magazine and in the cookbook “A Taste of Murder.”  (He also wrote the forward to Francine Brevetti’s paean to the famous San Francisco eatery Fior d’Italia entitled The Fabulous Fior:  100 Years in an Italian Kitchen.)   

John and his wife, Lisa Sawyer, live in Northern California. 
For those new to your series, can you describe the Dismas Hardy mysteries? Since you hadn’t originally intended this to be a series, how did you develop the series once you knew you wanted to do more Dismas Hardy books?

Dismas Hardy was a character who would not leave me alone.  I first used the name in my very first (still deservedly unpublished) novel, which I wrote in college – I loved the combination of the name of the Good Thief on the cross next to Jesus somehow connected to The Hardy Boys.  As I began my career, such as it was, I came out first with a literary novel, SUNBURN, and followed that with two Sherlock Holmes pastiches.  When I finally decided to write about a modern hero, a largely still undeveloped, but well-named Dismas Hardy was there waiting for me.  In the first of the Hardy books, DEAD IRISH, I thought I had a good character arc for a stand-alone novel, but never dreamed that Dismas would still be in my life twenty-some years later. 
The initial impetus to continue the character as a series came from my publisher, Donald Fine, who liked DEAD IRISH and Hardy a lot, and who wanted a sequel.  For a young writer hoping to keep getting published, this was a godsend moment.  I knew Hardy and liked him, and I figured he could have another adventure, so I wrote THE VIG. 
Then life intervened.  I got spinal meningitis and spent eleven days in a coma.  In the wake of that, and my survival, my day job as a legal word processor became unbearable for many reasons.  I wound up moving to Northern California from LA and didn’t write a word for perhaps sixteen months – a very long dry spell for me.  But by the time I started writing again, I knew what I wanted to do, which was move Dismas Hardy into the professional law business with a big, perhaps important book.  This was, of course, a huge challenge since I wasn’t a lawyer, but I did a lot of research and wrote HARD EVIDENCE, the first of the Hardy “legal thrillers.”  That book did poorly in the US, but sold for six figures in Germany and Japan and gave me the impetus to start another Hardy book in the same vein, and that book, THE 13TH JUROR, turned out to be my first bestseller. 
            Ironically, because of the lag time in publishing, I didn’t know that THE 13TH JUROR was going to be a hit, so I abandoned Hardy for the next two books and concentrated instead on Hardy’s cop pal Abe Glitsky.  So by the time the next true Dismas Hardy book, THE MERCY RULE, appeared, I had a much larger San Francisco cast of characters and was beginning to see the possibilities of the universe that all of my characters inhabited together, and I’ve been expanding those possibilities ever since. 

How would you describe Damage to someone who has not read any of your previous stand-alone novels?

            Damage has some legal elements, but they are decidedly in the background of the story.  I purposely created it as a more or less stand-alone novel.  Every now and then, when I’ve got a franchise character such as Dismas Hardy, I find it refreshing to let him rest somewhere off the page while life goes on in his greater universe.  So Damage features some of Hardy’s colleagues, notably Abe Glitsky and Wes Farrell, who get caught up in the release of convicted murderer Ro Curtlee through a technicality.  Ro is a very bad person.  His parents are rich and manipulative, and horrible stuff starts happening again within a day or two of Ro’s release from prison.  Glitsky and Farrell are constrained by their jobs and their consciences, while Ro just begins to run amuck.  And because of these elements, and also the creation of the character Sheila “Heinous” Marrenas, the novel has a tremendous propulsive force, or narrative drive, which was a blast to work with.  And as a stand-alone, it’s a great way to introduce new readers to the general neighborhood.

What's your writing process? What is a typical writing day like for you? What are your writing habits?

            I’ve been extremely fortunate to have been writing under multi-book contracts now for at least fifteen years, so my life is about as “organized” as those of people who work steady jobs.  I get up at around 7:30 (when my two children still lived at home, it was 6:00), then read the paper and have my coffee.  Next I’m off to my workout club where I sweat for about an hour and a half.  I’m usually at work at my office – I don’t write at home – and answer emails and real mail and generally put off writing as long as I can – I call it “sorting my socks” --  until around 1:00, when I start writing pages.  I don’t have a daily limit until I get to January or so (my books are always due to the publishers by June 1), but after January I write usually about seven to ten pages a day, finishing my first draft by about mid-April.  Then I do my own personal revisions and rewrites, work with my own personal editors, and hand in the finished book, after which I do another set of revisions based on the comments of my agent, the genius Barney Karpfinger and my real editor Ben Sevier, one of the very best.  Then I incorporate Ben’s suggestions, edit the galleys and start the process for the next book, the outline for which I hand in on September 1.   

You turned to full-time writing after a near-death experience, and that led to your great success. Do you regret not having made that transition earlier?

            Well, it wasn’t as though I was sitting there before the spinal meningitis hit me thinking that I was just passing the time writing mid-list books.  All the while, I was trying to write the kind of books that would give me a living in literature, but somehow had not discovered the “voice,” or the formula, or the techniques, to reach a big audience.  I’ve thought a lot about the question you’ve asked, above, and I’ve come to believe that though it seemed to take a very long time before I had any real success (I was forty-six when THE 13TH JUROR hit the bestseller list), it’s been for the best.  I learned a lot in the early days, gained real confidence in my abilities, and was able to handle the “trappings” of success without becoming too weird – although of course my friends would tell you that I’ve always been weird.  So while it might have been nice to have had a breakout book in my twenties or thirties, I don’t spend any time worrying about that. 

Who were your literary influences growing up? Are there any authors (living or dead) that you would name as influences?

            My main influence – the person who just knocked me out from the very first – was Hemingway.  This is not, of course, to say that my work reflects his in any meaningful way, but I was deeply affected by his style and basic approach to life and literature right from the git-go.  From there, the list of influences goes on, since I was by any standard a reading geek.  I adored Albert Camus and Mark Twain in high school.  In college, I essentially majored in Lawrence Durrell and the Alexandrian Quartet  -- still highly recommended!  After college, I drifted into what I’d call pleasurable, as opposed to “English major” reading – Rex Stout, Arthur Conan Doyle, John D. MacDonald – and found that I loved it!  Finally, in my thirties, I became enamored of the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian, phenomenal stuff.  And all along the way, I tried to remain sensitive to “new” voices, no matter if they were already well-established or even dead, as they presented themselves to me – Agatha Christie, PD James, Elmore Leonard, Nelson DeMille, T. Jefferson Parker. 

You wrote your first novel in college. What inspired you to write that first book? Had you always wanted to be a writer?

            I guess the short answer to this question is “Yes.”  I was a voracious reader from an early age, and just could never quite envision doing anything else for a living that would be meaningful.  This is really funny considering the dozens of jobs I wound up doing until I could get my writing to support me, but that’s the way I always felt.  As for that first college book, which I presciently entitled “No Promise,” I had already started telling friends and family that I was going to be a novelist, and I figured that meant I had to actually write a novel, or maybe even more.  (Although in my youth, my fantasy was that I would just write a few novels, maybe three or four, and then after that I would just be a “famous novelist.”)  So I sat down and started writing and pretty soon had a pretty bad novel.  But you know, a pretty bad novel is still a novel, and it was someplace to start.

Do you (or have you) belong(ed) to a critique group of other authors. Do you find it helpful? In what ways?

            The only critique group I’ve ever been a part of was a creative writing class at UC Berkeley back in 1969.  Jackson Burgess was our teacher and he told our class of about twenty students that only one of us was going to make a living as a professional novelist.  Then he told us who that student was and it wasn’t me.  So after that, I decided I would let the market, and neither my peers nor my instructors, decide who was good enough to be published.  I knew that I was going to be published because I wasn’t going to quit until that happened, and I didn’t stop learning and trying until it did.  (And I like to think I’m still learning.)

What is your advice to aspiring writers? How important is it for a young writer to be a reader? What would you recommend they read?

            My advice to young writers is simple:  read all you can and write all you can.  There is something to be learned in almost everything you read – whether it’s a fluency or felicity of language or something you know that you’ve got to avoid at all costs.  Read, read, read, every day, and write, write, write, every day.  There is no substitute – okay, you can take a few days off sometimes, but make reading and writing part of your everyday life.  It’s okay to read what you like, of course, but it’s also a good idea to push yourself to read something that doesn’t appeal at first encounter.  Only then will you be able to define what you like and don’t like, what you want to emulate, what you want to avoid.  And eventually your own personal voice will begin showing up and you’ll recognize it and then, eventually, hopefully, be able to control it.   

What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned in your writing career? What has been the hardest part about being a writer?

            The most surprising thing to me is that writing is a full-time lifelong commitment as well as a career.  When I was young, I really thought that I’d write one book that everyone would read (think STONE MOUNTAIN or THE DA VINCI CODE), and then I’d be a famous writer and that would be really cool.  In reality, of course, most working writers write books, and then we write other books.  It’s a continuing process, and we’re always learning, trying to get better, recommitting, because sometimes it’s very, very difficult – not just the writing itself, but the search for the next great idea, the frustrations of the business side, the obstinacy of your characters, the search for the mot juste.  It doesn’t really get much easier in a day-to-day sense, though to real writers this very difficulty makes it an enthralling, challenging adventure. 
The hardest part about it all?  In the face of criticism, cynicism, jealousy, ignorance, and apathy, it is incredibly hard to remain brave enough to create your own worlds and characters, and to believe in them absolutely.  And the way to conquer this hardest part?  Make your worlds and characters so real that they cannot be denied by the critics, the cynics, the jealous and the ignorant and the apathetic.  Or by yourself.   

Monday, we'll return to the Writers of Color series with an in-depth look at Luis Alberto Urrea, and we'll be back to our usual schedule. Have a happy weekend with lots of reading pleasure!


  1. Thank you for your interview with a wonderful writer. I agree with his observation that once you reach a goal as an author you find that you just keep on writing and continue trying to improve your skills.

  2. Thank you, Warren. I think John had a lot of wise things to say in this interview, and that is certainly one of the truest. I hope you're still enjoying New Zealand now that the newness is wearing off. We all miss you.